Sound of silence: Brightline tiptoes through West Palm’s quiet zones

A freight train rolled through West Palm Beach early Tuesday morning without blasting its horn, bringing an unfamiliar quiet to the neighborhoods surrounding the Florida East Coast Railway tracks.

For decades, city residents have endured the ear-piercing horns as locomotives pass through dozens of rail crossings along the FEC line. But for some, the blasts became intolerable in January when Brightline began running as many as 22 passenger trains a day between its stations in downtown West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, sounding the horns at every crossing along the way.

On Tuesday morning, the blasts came to an abrupt stop.

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A quiet zone went into effect at 11:59 p.m. Monday between 15th Street and the southern city limits — a designation that allows train operators to pass through crossings without sounding their horns. The first quiet train passed through the city just after midnight Tuesday morning, ushering in a welcomed silence along the FEC line.

“It is a dramatic difference in the quality of life here in this neighborhood,” said Rick Rose, a resident of the city’s Grandview Heights neighborhood who has spent more than a decade fighting for safe and quiet trains. “We are thrilled.”

Mary Mertz, who lives in the CityPlace South Tower condominium just west of the FEC tracks, said she watched several trains go by the building Tuesday morning without sounding the horn.

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“We had a wonderful night and a such peaceful and quiet morning,” Mertz said. “It is really night and day.”

West Palm is the first of six cities in Palm Beach County to establish the quiet zone along Brightline’s route. Lake Worth’s is scheduled to start next Monday.

Four other cities — Lantana, Hypoluxo, Delray and Boca Raton — are also eligible to apply for the quiet zone designation. It takes federal officials 21 days to review a city’s plan and decide whether safety upgrades meet the requirements to allow train operators to stop blasting their horns at crossings.

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In Boynton Beach, city officials this year asked county transportation planners to install more restrictive barriers at four railroad crossings, including the one at East Ocean Avenue, where a bicyclist was struck and killed by a Brightline train in January after pedaling around safety gates.

Jim Kovalsky, the president of the Florida East Coast Railway Society, called the quiet zone a “historic change” along the rail line, but said the designation could have unintended consequences.

“It is really important that people realize now more than ever you can’t be on the tracks,” he said.

Kovalsky pointed to people who walk along the train tracks or fish from railroad bridges, both of which are considered trespassing and are illegal.

“Those people until now have had a warning they didn’t realize,”Kovalsky said. “Those people have lost their warning. Those are the ones who are more at risk.”

One woman who was waiting for the bus near the Fern Street rail crossing just south of Brightline’s West Palm Beach station, said the horns provide an additional level of safety.

“The noise doesn’t bother me when I wait here and I’m around here,” she said. “I think there’s a need to alert people that the train is coming, so they don’t cross.”

In the 1984, residents living near the Florida East Coat Railway tracks got a taste of what life is like without train horns.

Florida legislators agreed to let cities establish a nighttime horn ban on the FEC line. Eventually, the ban was enacted at 511 of the FEC’s 600 crossings from Miami to Jacksonville.

The Federal Railroad Administration issued an emergency order in 1991 cancelling the state law after a study showed a 195 percent increase in nighttime accidents at crossings where trains did not sound warning whistles.

To begin service, Brightline pledged more than $60 million to complete a series of safety upgrades along the FEC corridor from Miami to West Palm Beach, including the installation of a signal system that communicates with approaching trains, triggers gate openings and closings, and regulates train-crossing times. That work has been completed.

The Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency also spent roughly $7 million for a number of other safety improvements to establish the quiet zone. Those upgrades include medians and additional railroad gates to block traffic on both sides of the tracks at crossings.

Without Brightline’s initial investment, however, Rose said the horn-free zones would have been too costly for local governments to establish.

“Without the Brightline project we would have never received these quiet zones,” Rose said.

Post Staff Writer Ryan DiPentima contributed to this story.

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